“Is it done yet?” I peered at the skillet full of brown sand, glistening on the hot stove top. A stainless steel plate sat snug over the sand and on it, a round container turned upside down protected the precious deliciousness inside.
“Not yet. The recipe says we’re not supposed to peek. Stand back!”, my sister said with an air of importance that older sisters reserve specially for their novice younger siblings.
Earlier that day, while my mom dry-roasted the semolina, my dad went out on a mission. To find and buy a can of condensed milk. In India, in the early 90s, finding something like condensed milk or baking powder was akin to finding water on Mars. For us, it meant a trip to Dorabjee’s, a posh store in a predominantly Anglo-Indian neighborhood, which stocked things like condensed milk and vanilla extract. Things which were totally alien to us.
My sister, the pioneer of our household had sourced the recipe from a newspaper cut-out. I call her that because she, unlike me, loved trying new things, not limited only to food. Whenever Dad took us out for ice-cream, the creature of habit in me always chose chocolate, my mom always chose mango, but my sister would always try something exotic like Figs and Honey or Lavender and Thyme (That’s obviously not a flavor, but you get the idea)
She introduced me to reading, to new foods, to scrapbooks and craft. I remember her notebook with blue mountains on the cover. She had converted it into a Princess Diana scrapbook full of pictures and quotes she had cut out from magazines and newspapers. It was the neighborhood’s envy.
We had most of our ingredients for our first attempt at making a cake, except the most important bit. We didn’t have an oven. Our modest little kitchen only had a 4-burner gas stove, but ovens, well, we didn’t have the money to splurge on things which weren’t necessary. But help came from a neighbor who had “baked” a cake on the stove top with sand! She jumped right in to help, armed with a small plastic bag of sand and a face brimming with enthusiasm.
Since baking a cake was such a novel idea in those days, a few other neighbors came by uninvited, only to watch. Much like those side actors in movies who linger in the background. Our tiny kitchen was a bustling party.
My sister, all of 13, started the process, with my mom looking over her shoulder. She mixed the semolina and the sugar and the butter. We couldn’t find baking powder, but we figured how bad could it be? It’s just one teaspoon! So we skipped it.
Since I was 10 and knew nothing about cooking, I was given the menial task of assisting her with utensils and cleaning up after. Once the goopy batter was done, the sand neighbor stepped in with her baking expertise.
As we all stood around waiting for our confection to puff up, cups of tea were passed around, people sat wherever they wanted and conversation flowed freely. I remember feeling completely happy that day. My father sat in the hall reading his newspaper and keeping time. The sweet sound of my mother’s laughter rang above all the other voices. Everything was perfect.
When dad pronounced it was time, my mom as if getting ready for battle, picked up two pieces of thick cloth and walked into the kitchen with purpose.
Excited ooh and aahs followed. “We’ll never have to buy cake anymore!” one of the more optimistic neighbors gushed. “We’ll just come here for cake!”
With the precision of a surgeon, my mom placed it on our over sized dinner table. We craned our necks to see. Instead of a fluffy, airy delight, a dense flat pancake pockmarked with holes sat tight on the plate. It looked like the cake had choked and given up.
Disappointment fell on the kitchen like a thick wet blanket. “Well, it was good try!”, my dad’s voice cut through the awkward silence. He bravely cut a slice for himself and proclaimed it perfect. I remember the cake being passed around and everyone talking about how it tasted just like the cakes we bought from our neighborhood bakery. So what if it didn’t exactly look like them?
From opposite sides of our table, my sister and I looked at each other with glum expressions. Out of nowhere, a wave of laughter erupted from the bottom of our bellies. We snickered, grunted and laughed until we cried. Like it was an inside joke. I remember my insides churning with laughter. Over a failed culinary adventure.
That day was like a representative of our lives to come. We’ve always been like that, my sister and I. Our lives have been a mix of good cakes and some really bad ones, but we somehow get the strength to laugh about it when we’re together. It’s as if we’re living my favorite quote by Gregory David Roberts in Shantaram – “If Fate doesn’t make you laugh, you just don’t get the joke.”
I guess that’s what sisters do. Help each other find the humor in life’s disappointments. And the deliciousness in flat semolina cakes.